Written by Facundo E. Saponara
On the 26th of August 2021, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP, the Islamic State’s Afghan-Pakistani affiliate) detonated a suicide vest at Abbey Gate, on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKAI) in Kabul. Claiming the lives of 180 people and wounding hundreds more, the day of this piece’s publication marks one-year since the attack and the rise to power of the Taliban. To highlight this occurrence, this piece will review the current security scene within Afghanistan one-year on, and what implications this may have for the region.
The current terrorist threat
On the 18th of August 2022, unknown terrorist actors detonated explosives at the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq mosque, Kabul, killing 21 and wounding tens more. Hours later, a different attack took place in Kandahar, where over 2,500 Taliban officials were congregating. These attacks, which form part of a long string of over 220 attacks by ISKP since the Taliban took power in August of 2021, highlight the severity of the current terrorist threat within Afghanistan. But while public hangings, executions, and humiliations, have been used by the Taliban to deter the ISKP movement, it seems that number and size of terror attacks are increasing.
In part, this is a the result of the weakened financial state of the Taliban Government; which due to international sanctions, has struggled to maintain its military operations against ISKP. However, a greater contributor has been the inter-tribal dynamics that have long existed prior the arrival of Western forces to the region. This dynamic has been navigated effectively by ISKP to gain a stronger foothold in the country and position itself as a viable opposition and a genuine threat to Taliban rule.
But while there would be an international vested interest in aiding the Taliban to combat ISKP, the recent liquidation of the prominent Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Kabul by the US Air Force highlights a concrete connection between the two groups. This is in direct contradiction to the Doha Agreement, in which the Taliban committed to not cooperating with known terrorist groups. As long as such actions by the Taliban continue, it is unlikely that any financial or military assistance will be provided by the international community to aid in the current deteriorating security situation.
Political and social security
On the political and social front, the first year of Taliban rule has been characterized by a series of challenges. Firstly, the failure to consolidate – or begin the process of consolidation of – an inclusive national government. Although the Taliban label their government as such, the inclusiveness is not derived from a diverse pool of political affiliations, but rather from the distribution of political positions to Talib from different ethnical backgrounds (Uzbeks, Hazarans, etc.). This has given the Taliban ground to place their officials in the most strategic positions, while refusing any sort of representation to those in the political opposition.
Secondly, the oppression of women’s rights has fueled political and social instability in the country, particularly regarding basic female rights to freedom of mobility, access to education, and the labor market; despite the Taliban’s initial reassurance. Local authorities have provided several reasons that justify the closure of girl schools in the country (mainly being cultural and religious sensitivities), but these haven’t been able to pacify the Afghan society.
Thirdly, the lack of internal consensus within the Taliban has been palpable since their takeover, and could prove to be especially destabilizing for the country if not managed appropriately. Religious rigor, the creation (or reinstitution) of the Islamic Emirate, the adoption of the Taliban white flag as the national flag, the imposition of a Taliban-controlled government, and the openness and insertion of the international community are major hurdles that the Taliban will have to address in the near future.
Overall, these political factors find themselves positioned on the backdrop of a full blown economic and humanitarian crisis. Since the fall of Kabul, the international community has questioned whether the Taliban would be capable of avoiding a famine. First estimates predicted that, within six months of the fall, an unprecedented food catastrophe in the country would take place. Thankfully, through humanitarian aid provided by a plethora of non-governmental organizations, such a catastrophe was avoided. Nevertheless, the need for humanitarian assistance continues to be of paramount importance since the crumbling state of the economy reduced the annual food production and the shortages caused by the war in Ukraine continue to put pressure on the food supply chain.
Overall, Afghanistan is in a delicate state of affairs which is likely to degrade without further international assistance. ISKP’s ability to lure in disgruntled Taliban and al Qaeda members is a critical factor, as al Qaeda will soon need to name its new leader and the Taliban continue to show disunity. The unopposed growth of ISKP in Afghanistan will unequivocally have broader regional consequences as the group is currently present in Pakistan and – albeit in small numbers – in India. Such growth may also allow for the establishment of a new safe haven from which terrorist groups will be able to operate regionally; allowing them to exploit historical tensions between neighbouring countries (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, or more worryingly India and Pakistan).
Additionally, al Qaeda’s need to name a new leader may alter their relations with the Taliban. If the newly appointed leader is not of Afghan origin or does not seek refuge in Afghanistan, this might be the first step in distancing the organization from the de facto rulers of Afghanistan. This would be a necessity for the Taliban factions that aspire to gain international recognition. That being said, the international community should remain watchful over the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship, as the historical links between the groups were instated decades ago and are not likely to fade in the near future.
Tackling Afghanistan’s decaying economy (shrinking between 20 and 30% since August 2021) should be considered a matter of national security for Western mandataries’ policies. The price of basic commodities has more than doubled in the last two months, and the shortage of inputs of the agricultural industry, such as fertilizer and fuel, has also doubled in the same margin of time. If not properly addressed, the economic and humanitarian crises will continue to affect an ever-growing number of individuals.
Seeking to reduce the extent to which the Afghan civilian population is exposed to a humanitarian crisis, political violence at the hands of the Taliban, or of more radicalized parties, should be the main focal points of the international community’s approach. As an inability to do so will lead to a greater global terror threat. To avert this, the international community will need to pursue an active policy of engagement with the Taliban authorities; which would likely involve partially enabling the access of the Afghan Central Bank to its frozen foreign assets, while assisting the Taliban in creating and implementing effective procedures for counter-terrorism policies.
About the author: Facundo E. Saponara
Facundo, originally from Argentina, is currently enrolled in the master’s degree in Strategy and Geopolitics at the Escuela Superior de Ejército. Counting with a background in international relations, he has specialized in the analysis of interstate and intrastate conflicts and terrorism.
This article was edited by Alessia Cappelletti. Annick Dingemans contributed with valuable insights from her first hand experience.